“Who Made Me?”: The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill
-The question “Who Made Me?” cannot be answered.
A version of this essay first appeared in Prose Studies (London, Frank Cass), v. 5, September 1982, No. 2.
WordPress does not support footnotes. I have attached a link following the essay’s conclusion. The link will take you to fully-documented version of this piece.
1. The Missing Subject
Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield opens with one of the most disturbing lines in literature. David begins his narrative and introduces himself:
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
We cannot help but feel stunned by the magnitude of David’s dissociation. It unnerves us that he feels such radical uncertainty about the materials and meanings of his existence. His situation seems either novelistic or psychotic. Confusion so extreme about the substance of one’s selfhood and the ownership of one’s experience only could occur, we imagine, in a fiction or a madness.
A similar moment occurs in The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. In the memoir’s closing chapter, Mill declares:
Whoever, either now or hereafter, may think of me and the work I have done, must never forget that it is the product not of one intellect and conscience but of three, the least considerable of whom, and above all the least original, is the one whose name is attached to it.
The sentence is so disconcerting that we scarcely know how to read it. How can we account for this startlingly comfortable assertion of insignificance and unoriginality? How can we comprehend Mill’s cozy conviction that his identity, history, and extraordinary achievements have nothing to do with his own psyche, spirit, and soul but have evolved exclusively as the inanimate “product” of an inchoate, disembodied entity coded as a tripartite “intellect and conscience?” How can we explain his belief that his august sensibility and illustrious “work” were forged as the manufacture of two other persons’ intelligence, will, and ethos?
No one ever has doubted Mill’s sincerity. But these avowals seem astonishing, absurd, abhorrent.
We feel as troubled by Mill’s language as by his percepts. We note that he refuses the grammar of personality. “Me” and “I” neuter themselves as “it” and “the one whose name is attached to it.” The sentence derives its puissance from its speaker’s ascription of prosaicness and powerlessness to himself. The writing is captivating. But it captivates because it depersonalizes, deprecates, and decertifies the writer.
This declaration and the bleak certitudes that inform it are characteristic of Mill’s thought and art in the Autobiography. Throughout one of the most revealing personal histories ever composed, Mill testifies to his lack of centrality and substance in his own life. He repeatedly avers – quietly, tranquilly, placidly – that he is inadequate, unimaginative, and essentially passive: an impersonal, non-authoritative cryptogram embedded in his own existence and “work.”
This is particularly true of the Autobiography’s opening paragraph. Mill commences what he calls his “biographical sketch” of himself by stating that his reminiscences and his ways of describing them cannot possibly excite our curiosity:
I do not for a moment imagine that any part of what I have to relate, can be interesting to the public as a narrative, or as being connected to myself (3).
He apologetically tries to explain why he is memorializing his experience:
I should prefix to the following biographical sketch, some mention of the reasons which have made me think it desirable that I should leave behind me such a memorial of so uneventful a life as mine.
The rationales he cites are odd and alarming:
In an age in which education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period of English history, it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable…. It has also seemed to me that in an age of transition of opinions, there may be somewhat both of interest and of benefit in nothing the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others. But a motive which weighs more with me than either of these, is a desire to make acknowledgment of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to other persons (3).
The passage almost has no subject. Or, rather, it has a multitude of subjects that appear concurrently to cooperate and conflict with one another.
The paragraph concerns a man we know to have been named John Stuart Mill: a person many of us regard as a genius of monumental importance and influence. However, the prose cannot make its way to Mill’s history, character, consciousness, and accomplishments. It cannot even utter its subject’s name. The text can engage and describe the man only by drawing together a host of abstruse generalizations: the age, an education, successive phases, a mind – “any mind” – debts, “intellectual and moral development.”
These abstractions coalesce with one another, and advance themselves as the missing subject’s substance. John Mill is comprised, we are told, of his intellect, its influencers, and its evolution: all of which came into being during a recent and, we gather, a distinctive period of time in the history of England.
The person the paragraph tries to make tangible is a man whose materiality derives from the tangibleness of things other than himself. But the text simultaneously suggests that this scripted Mill is obscured and overwhelmed by the forces that sculpted him. The individual is dwarfed and ultimately displaced by his “debts” and his “development.” He is secondary to his origins – so much so that his genesis and pedigree seem to him far more “eventful,” “useful,” and “desirable” than the man they collectively produced.
The Autobiography’s opening paragraph defines a human being who has been both created and demolished by an assortment of phenomena that appear to have been too strong and active for the individual they engendered and then overpowered. The brilliant but bizarre passage portrays a person whose history has made him at once vital and amorphous, knowable and undiscoverable, conspicuous and indiscernible.
This is Mill’s dilemma and subject in the Autobiography. He wants to “think of [himself] and the work [he has] done.” But he does not know how to locate, value, or converse about himself. No wonder he so frequently selects grammars that dispossess and neuter.
Mill solves his seemingly insoluble dilemma by circumventing it. Because he does not know how to define his consciousness and valorize his creations, he makes autobiography about “his intellectual and moral development” and the “other persons” who determined it. Because he does not know how to identify and prize the qualities, emotions, and triumphant achievements that make him tangible, he discusses the etiology of his intangibleness.
This daunting challenge and its ingenious resolution are almost insuperably complex. And infinitely sad. In order to characterize himself – he is by any measure a very great man – Mill believes he must represent himself as his lack of character. In order to write about his wondrous substance, he believes he must detail “the successive phases” of his autonomic reactions to other, more obviously substantive people.
A genius set out to write a “biographical sketch.” He composed a tragedy.
2. The Imperial Father
The person who most powerfully affected Mill’s development was his father. It is for this reason the narrative portion of the Autobiography opens in the peculiar way it does:
I was born in London, on the 20th of May 1806, and was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India (4).
From this point John launches a “biographical sketch” not of himself but of James. He discusses not his own but his parent’s opinions, writings, and impact upon contemporary intellectual and civil affairs. He can approach the fact of himself, it seems, only by recounting and celebrating the fact of his progenitor.
The tactic is intelligible. Perhaps it is inevitable. A son who believes himself to have been psychically determined by his sire will wish to think about and memorialize his father before he thinks about and memorializes himself.
The stratagem may be intelligible. But it is confusing as the opening of an autobiography because it conceals from us the nature of the discourse, the identity of the subject, and the position – so to speak, the rank – of the author. We soon shall see that it disguises these crucial materials from the writer as well
Here and always Mill’s prose is crystal clear. But as we read the book’s opening paragraphs we feel perplexed and estranged. Is this a biography, or an autobiography? Who is the subject: James or John? Whose life will give the book its topics, quotients, and energies? Whose character and consciousness will give the volume its visions, views, and voice?
We quickly discover that, no matter how puzzling we find the opening, it is entirely extrapolative of and consonant with the book’s content. As we turn page after page of this astonishing work, we swiftly realize the Autobiography predominantly reports, explores, and attempts to overcome the catastrophic circumstance that its author does not know how to distinguish himself from his father. We learn that the Autobiography chiefly concerns the sad and startling fact that one of the nineteenth-century’s preeminent geniuses can imagine and discuss his own existence only by visualizing and celebrating his masterful parent’s.
The beginning paragraph may disorient, perhaps even vex us. But it ingeniously enacts Mill’s disorientation and anger. It announces the fact that as we read the Autobiography we shall encounter a brilliantly gifted, remarkably tender, kind, gentle, and good man who is attempting to trace “the successive phases” and relieve the incapacitating pain of his terrible conviction that he is an unidentifiable and unimportant person – that he is, at best, a much less excellent and far less effective person than his imposing patriarch.
Let us look more closely at the narrative’s opening. As we study the strange, seemingly evasive prose we realize it is neither strange nor evasive, for it directly identifies the major source of its author’s confusion and suffering.
I … was the eldest son of James Mill, the author of the History of British India.
The sentence’s blunt language suggests, anything but accidentally, that Mill was engendered, given birth to, and raised by a single parent. It defines John solely as the son of a father, not the child of a father and a mother.
The phrasing seems offhand and dispassionate. But there is nothing unengaged or unemotional about Mill’s emotions here. He is confiding his most primal interpretation of his life’s constitution, purpose, and meaning.
The sentence’s apparent inaccuracy or inarticulateness – the absence of the mother – is unconsciously intentional. Its surface impassivity is subliminally volatile. At levels beneath that of awareness, Mill fully intends to acknowledge bewilderment and discharge resentment.
Who was my mother, he is asking. I know who my father was. I know what he did. But who was my mother? Where was she? What did she do? What was she the author of? The carefully censored prose controls but does not conceal the writer’s bafflement, pain, and indignation.
The prose also indicates that almost as confusing and distressing for Mill as the notion of his father’s autogamy was the fact that for his father paternity and authorship seemed to have been wholly coextensive activities. The sentence’s appositional syntax conveys John’s conviction that for James parenting a son and writing a book had approximately identical attributes and import.
Throughout the Autobiography’s first five chapters Mill goes to considerable lengths to demonstrate that his father regarded and treated him as a species of tome. He makes it disturbingly clear that he believed himself to have been not so much parented, loved, and educated as previsioned, written, and edited.
What an awful apperception to have about one’s father. But it was accurate. Generations of readers have felt repelled by the manner and magnitude of James’s parenting. His immersion of John at a preposterously early age into intense, autonomic learning of tertiary-level curricula. His ruthless superintendence of every facet of John’s intellectual, moral, and aesthetic life. His unthinkable interdiction of John’s spiritual consciousness. His regime of forced, unrelenting, rigorous study, incessant assessment, harsh judgment, insatiable expectation – all in a surround of unvarying sterility and austerity. A childhood of uninterrupted, unending, joyless drab. Way to go, Dad.
Despite our revulsion, we receive titillation in reading about this famously difficult childhood. We feel shocked, yet not at all mystified as John converses with us about the completeness of his involvement with his father and the extraordinarily primal nature of their relationship .
It is not difficult to understand why Mill’s account of his subjugation interests us so much. It is because we know this father. To one or another extent we all feel dominated by our father. John Mill’s experience engrosses us because it seems a horrific but familiar intensification of our own.
Mill’s riveting chronicle compels us to compare our childhood with his. More accurately, we initially identify. Then we differentiate.
We all have felt the allure and authority of our father. But as Mill recounts the rococo story of his sonship we find ourselves wondering what it can have felt like to be made this subservient to so powerful a patriarch. What can it have meant – what can it have cost – to be not just normally or thoroughly but absolutely fathered? Not just inspired and shepherded but wrought, rendered, carved, cast, died, molded? Not just influenced, but processed, pureed, and poured.
Mill does not initially seem aware of his subjugation as an issue. As we first read the Autobiography we may think Mill’s power of acceptance and adjustment is as surprising as the entirety of his subjection. We feel struck by how serenely he appears to have reacted to experiences that we know gravely injured him, and assume should therefore have outraged him.
We marvel that he continually refers to his maltreated, truncated boyhood in only the most circumspect terms. We marvel that he invariably speaks of his father with respect and, often, worshipful affection.
Did he never feel victimized? Did he feel not one shard of confusion or fear or fury? Can it be that in the case of John Stuart Mill severe and sustained psychological abuse precipitated nothing but acceptance, gratitude, love, and titanic achievement?
This possibility puzzles us, but it also deeply attracts. Much of the Autobiography’s interest for its enormous worldwide audience derives from its ability to evoke and portray the sense of infinite human resilience.
More than this. We receive from Mill’s story much more than the pleasing idea of our species’ elasticity and suppleness. We also feel intrigued and moved by the book’s ability – an ability unequalled in English literature – to conjure the possibility of immeasurably deep and infinitely protracted infantile love.
Most of us learn first to spurn, then sublimate, then supplant the Oedipal hysteria. The Autobiography suggests Mill’s experience of the Oedipus complex was unqualified, ecstatic, lifelong, and magisterially productive.
As he describes it, his entire intrapsychical existence seems to have occurred as an eerie but epic tour de force of paternal worship. As we first read the Autobiography we find ourselves concluding that this redoubtable person, this wunderkind, was a man who was able to yield without resistance, remorse, or detriment to the primitive totem of the imperial father.
It is this that initially seems most compelling about Mill’s memoir. The work captivates us, as it did its author, because it summons into formal and excited order all the awe and adoration an infant subliminally directs onto an overly idealized progenitor.
The Autobiography captivates us because it organizes, gives voice to, and makes seem reasonable, healthy, survivable, and constructive an inadmissible compulsion that we all encounter, suppress, but involuntarily long to emancipate. It has established itself as one of the world’s most affecting and valuable books because it examines, directly and deliberately, the universally felt but universally proscribed instinct of father-worship .
I am proposing that we unconsciously respond to the Autobiography in much the same way Mill did. The work seems to us, as it seemed to its author, the tableau or tabernacle of an aboriginal and thrilling taboo.
3. Metamorphosing Fact
Taboos are taboo for a reason. Our initial euphoric appraisal cannot survive thoughtful reflection and return readings. The Autobiography is a vastly more complex text that we first understand it to be; and no one escapes a universal proscription unscathed.
As we more closely examine this somber study of an extraordinary life we discover that, with his unfailing intrepidity and incomparable intelligence, Mill did recognize and respond to the more terrible aspects of his history.
We learn that he suffered serious – during one period, very nearly mortal – damage from his supererogatory sonship; and he developed responses of acute pain and sustained anger. But in his memoir as in his life, he experiences his reactions covertly and expresses them furtively, as if he feels impelled to deconstruct his natural resentment and divert his unavoidable wrath.
Communicating adjustment, love, and productivity was agreeable and easy for Mill. When he writes encomia to his father his prose is quick, certain, and exultant, as if extolling his maker seems to him a prayerful activity: a hymning of hosanna, a canticle of thanksgiving.
His less contented scripts, however, exhibit symptoms of extreme disturbance. The few but potent passages in which he confesses objection and acknowledges torment sound constrained and reluctant, contorted, clotted, as though he feels that dissenting opinions and aggravated emotions are confusing and menacing synapses.
As we read and reread the Autobiography, we see that Mill controlled the dangerous material of his argumentative and antagonistic responses to his father by glorifying his gratitude, exalting his love, and censoring his ire. We see that he tries to conceal his dissident and indignant consciousness from himself as well as from his readers – presumably because he does not want or dare openly to confront the manifold contradictions of his innermost feelings about his despotic parent and his confiscated childhood.
As we study this cunning book, we learn one of the unspoken “motives” that shaped the Autobiography and fueled its immense creativity was Mill’s need to create a mechanism by which he could explore and relieve his untoward ambivalence toward his father without ever having consciously to acknowledge that he felt ambivalence.
The act of making memoir seems to have given Mill a means by which he could convert his intolerable experience into an existence he would have preferred to live if he could have authored his history. Throughout the Autobiography John writes about his oppressive youth in such a way as transform much of the indifference, domination, and restrictiveness he actually received from James into the love and liberality he wished he had received.
Mill never deliberately dissembles or deceives. Throughout his life he found it impossible to prevaricate. In his art he does not need to. Instead he can imaginatively reorder or, as it were, rewrite his past. He can subrationally deny and artfully recondition the realities that most intensely wounded him.
It is for this reason, subliminal in structure but coercive in necessity, that he describes his parent’s preoccupations and prohibitions in such a way as to metamorphose James’s disregard and abusiveness into abiding concern and care. He defines his unconscious emotions of loneliness, injury, and wrath into a consciousness of vast inclusion and tender nurturing. He treats the bewilderment, grief, and hurt of his childhood isolation as a happy awareness of patriarchal communication and communion.
Multiple readings teach us we should regard the Autobiography as a work not of inspired reminiscence but of brilliantly creative reconstruction and rehabilitation. We learn that one of the world’s canonical memoirs invents a life its author craved but did not live.
We can observe this fascinating process of honest self-deception and earnest fabrication throughout the Autobiography. Early in the narrative, for example, Mill remarks:
[My father] was often, and much beyond reason, provoked by my failures in cases where success could not have been expected; but in the main his method was right, and it succeeded (19).
My recollection … is almost wholly of failures, hardly ever of success. It is true, the failures were often in things where success in so early a stage of my progress, was almost impossible…. In this [my father] seems, and perhaps was, very unreasonable; but I think, only in being angry at my failure. A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can (20-21).
Discourse of this kind enables Mill to know his anger, comprehend its sources, and release its energies. But even as in a supremely cautious and measured way he conveys his indignation, he demonstrates to his own satisfaction that his senses of solitude and sorrow are essentially baseless and therefore erasable. My papa proffered me salubrious stimulus, and his pedagogy succeeded on a grand scale. My pain was an unintended consequence, and therefore may be expunged.
This is not simply a defense of his father’s pedagogics. More importantly it is a discovery of his parent’s underlying love. John persuades himself in this intricate, subliminally strategic passage that James’s apparent lack of regard and gratuitous aggressiveness – what we would term his pathological pugnacity – must be interpreted as manifestations of the most affectionate and benevolent paternal devotion. He was abased and abused only because his father wanted him to accomplish “all he can.”
John acknowledges that James maimed him. However, he concludes “in the main his method was right” because it encouraged him to expect, seek, and achieve “success.” The father’s “method was right,” this is to say, because it was motivated by his profound love and beautiful hope for his child. He never meant to harm his helpless son. He meant to catalyze his prodigy’s sacral power.
Mill’s ability simultaneously to accuse and exonerate his father is especially evident and moving on those occasions when he describes his birth family’s cosmic frigidity:
The element which was chiefly deficient in [my father’s] moral relation to his children, was that of tenderness (32).
In an earlier draft, he wrote:
In respect to what I here am concerned with, the moral agencies which acted on myself, it must be mentioned as a most baneful one, that my father’s children neither loved him, nor, with any warmth of affection, any one else… I thus grew up in the absence of love & in the presence of fear: & many & indelible are the effects of this bringing-up, in the stunting of my moral growth .
Mill never recanted this testimony. This reluctant testimony: we note that he writes: “It must be mentioned.” But he does try to qualify its significance and minimize its salience:
I do not mean that things were worse in this respect than they are in most English families; in which genuine affection is altogether exceptional; what is usually found being more or less of an attachment of mere habit, like that to inanimate objects, & a few conventional proprieties of phrase & demonstration. I believe there is less personal affection in England than in any other country of which I know anything, & I give my father’s family not as peculiar in this respect but only as a too faithful exemplification of the ordinary fact (Early Draft, 184).
His preliminary draft dissatisfied Mill. He revised the passage for publication. In the final text, he declares:
I do not believe that [my father’s] deficiency lay in his own nature. I believe him to have had much more feeling than he habitually shewed [sic], and much greater capacities of feeling than were ever developed. He resembled most Englishmen in being ashamed of the signs of feeling, and, by the absence of demonstration, starving the feelings themselves.
Aha! James’s reserve and rigidity were circumstantial. They were not personal.
What was personal – what not only redeems James’s apparent lovelessness but transforms his coldness into an exposition of supreme love – were the necessities imposed upon him by his heroic choice to homeschool Mill and his siblings:
If we consider further that he was in the trying position of sole teacher, and add to this that his temper was constitutionally irritable, it is impossible not to feel true pity for a father who did, and strove to do, so much for his children, who would have valued their affection, yet who must have been feeling that fear of him was drying it up at its sources. This was no longer the case, later in life and with his younger children. They loved him tenderly; and if I cannot say so much of myself, I was always loyally attached to him (32).
In both versions of this enlightening material Mill recognizes that his father’s love was incomplete in its constitution and defective in its presentation. He brings himself to believe, though, that the “deficiency” did not lie “in [his father’s] own nature” so much as in his cultural enclosure. James had to be remote, “irritable,” and frightening because he was English, and all Englishmen are “ashamed by the signs of feeling” .
He even persuades himself that his father’s inability to convey “personal affection” must be understood as an indication of its profoundness. It was because James was “in the trying position of sole teacher” that he had to restrain his inborn desire to shower his children with sympathy, gentleness, and love. It was because James “did, and strove to do, so much” for his children that, most unwillingly, and only with great difficulty, he artificially inhibited his instinctive tenderness.
Mill goes even further. He interprets it as the sign of his special favor with his father that he was made to study an environment even more laborious and loveless than his siblings’. It was because James felt far less for “his younger children” that he gave them weaker requirements and mere patronizing affection rather that the impossibly high expectations and merciless rigor he reserved for his firstborn.
What an ingenious contortion. Because James loved John so much, he had no choice but to seem to have loved him not at all. “True pity” in his pitiable situation should be directed, this supernally loyal son concludes, not to himself but to the selfless parent who “would have valued [John’s] affection” beyond all things, but selflessly deprived himself of that deeply desired pleasure in order that he might give the child he preferred above all others a habitat in which he most fully could develop his profuse abilities.
The stratagem is as bold as it is byzantine. Throughout the Autobiography Mill records his patrimony of bewilderment, disappointment, grief, and anger. But he records the history primarily because he longs to reject and restructure it.
And he does. He metamorphoses it. In particular he creates the plausible illusion that he in fact did receive from his father the love he craved, but never could feel embracing, defining, and supporting him.
The more closely we examine the text, the more clearly we see its uses for its author. We see the autobiographer wrote the Autobiography not because he wanted to remember and publicly share his experience, but because he needed privately to renounce and revise it.
Mill’s strategy succeeded. He wrote a masterpiece: a discourse not of disclosure, but of denial.
4. Mama M.I.A.
A note for our international readers: “M.I.A.” is an American military acronym that means “Missing In Action.”
A crucial element of his experience that Mill felt especially eager to reimagine and reorder was the primal matter of his own and his father’s relationship with Harriet Barrow [sometimes spelled Burrow] Mill: John’s mother, and James’s wife.
We first become aware of his mother’s importance to Mill by her absence from the narrative. One of the most peculiar and engrossing circumstances about the Autobiography is the fact that Mill does not once mention his mother in the final text of the work . In his multiple early drafts he refers to her on but nine occasions; and only once in these subsequently discarded treatments does he speak about her at any length .
We cannot help but wonder at this glaring void. How can it be that in his entire lifetime this prolific author, one of civilization’s earliest, most impassioned, and most active advocates for women’s prerogatives, privileges, and rights in the family, the workplace, and society, wrote a single sustained, and by his choice unpublished, description of his mother?
Even this passage is abbreviated. It contains only ninety-three words; and they are shocking in their antipathy and anger.
Here is the paragraph:
That rarity in England, a really warm hearted mother, would in the first place have made my father a totally different being, & in the second would have made the children grow up loving & being loved. But my mother with the very best intentions, only knew how to pass her life in drudging for them. Whatever she could do for them she did, & they liked her, because she was kind to them, but to make herself loved, looked up to, or even obeyed, required qualities which she unfortunately did not possess (Early Draft, 184).
Here and in the few other sentences in his early drafts in which Mill addresses the subject of his mother, he expresses abject scorn and barely repressed aversion. He also conveys an urgent desire to deny both the fact of his mother’s existence and the meaning of his father’s involvement with her existence.
He asserts, for example, that his mother was “ill assorted” (Early Draft, 66) to James. He tells us that with his wife James “had not, & never could have supposed that he had, the inducements of kindred intellect, tastes, or pursuits” (Early Draft, 36). And he protests that James’s impulse to father numerous children with Harriet is beyond comprehension:
… A conduct than which nothing could be more opposed, both as a matter of good sense and of duty, to the opinions which, at least at a later period of life, he strenuously upheld (4). The mystification Mill voices in these agitated remarks camouflages but cannot conceal his almost consciously jealous determination to ignore and, if possible, negate the erotic content of his patriarch’s partnership with his wife. Rather than allow himself to identify the inescapably evident reason why James wanted to have “married and had a large family” (4), he permits himself to conclude that his parents’ response to one another was incoherent, irresponsible, and incomprehensible.
We can see, as Mill could not, that his expressions of bafflement weakly but effectually mask a clear, full, and painful understanding of his father’s “conduct.” We can see, as he could not, that his desire to make Harriet’s claims upon James a matter mysterious and inexplicable emanates from a longing to invalidate them, negate them, and insert himself into the positions, functions, and roles from which he expels her.
We can see, as he could not, that the resourceful adult who wrote these professions of perplexity was the direct descendent of the child who yearned to become not just his patriarch’s preferred son, pupil, and companion but his fully acknowledged helpmeet and mate.
We can see more. Mill’s decision to exclude from his published text even these few bitter, dismissive, and usurping comments about his mother constitutes not just a reprimand veiled as reticence but also a resolving retribution.
Banning from his memoir the mere mention of Harriet metaphorically but muscularly punishes her for winning the uxorial unification with James that had been prohibited him. Nothing Mill could do in his conscious, licit life more consummately could have enacted admonishment, discharged fury, and exacted revenge upon his mother than this flagrantly public absenting: this authorial annulling of her actuality.
Revenge indeed. Mill’s refusal to acknowledge his mother in the historical account of his life is not just an omission. It is an annihilation. By ignoring the fact of her existence in the public representation of his own, Mill discreates her. He salves the pain of a lifelong injury and assuages an enduring rage by committing an emblematic murder: an authorial assassination.
Of course Mill did not understand this at any level of aware thought. But that is exactly the source of the strategy’s efficacy, and the secret of its remedial power
The gratification Mill received from the Autobiography’s metaphorical matricide derived from its ability to behave as an entirely subliminal, solely symbolic act. Not a deed, nothing like a deed: simply a staging akin to dream. A presentation violent, viral, and discreet. A performance absolute and surreptitious. A depiction definitive: indeed, deadly. But displaced, distorted and disguised, and therefore deniable.
Ostracizing his mother from the story of his life gave Mill a solution that reality never proffers victims of the Oedipal emergency. The cloaks and concealments made available to him by the making of autobiography allowed the autobiographer to dispose of one of his principal fixations without ever becoming forced to disesteem himself for feeling it, freeing it, and acting upon it .
We have seen much. But there is more.
We can see that banishing his mother from the Autobiography provided its author with two other important compensations. Using literature to literalize Harriet’s triviality radically reduced his anguished idea of her import for his father. And it decisively situated himself as his father’s notional spouse.
- Mill cannot consciously concede either of these subconscious transformations. But his work in the Autobiography lets us hear him conceive it, implement it, and welcome its compensations: My mother is a nonentity: a literally forgettable figment of ignorant and inane frippery.
- Her place in my father’s life, accordingly, can have been of no real consequence.
- Therefore, not she but I have been the most consequential person in my father’s life.
- I am, then, not just my progenitor’s most favored – and thus most abused – child. I am as well his true and only conjugal coadjutor: his allegorical but operative matrimonial partner.
This intricate substitution of himself for Harriet as James’s nuptial consort luxuriantly discharges the Oedipal agenda. Mill’s refusal ever to mention his mother in the Autobiography permits him at once to express, avenge, and disregard the atavistic but unacceptable jealousy and alluvial anger he felt toward the mother he believed had abandoned him; and had attempted to usurp for herself the person he most loved and needed.
I am not contending that authoring the Autobiography cured Mill of his primal neuroses. I am proposing, rather, that creating his memoir reorganized and relieved many of the pressures the neuroses mounted against his mind; and that it did so by allowing their toxic fundament of bewilderment, grief, and vindictive hatred to become symbolically articulated, harmlessly acted upon, and yet ignored.
5. Compensatory Consciousness
Authoring himself as a man who could simultaneously confess and suppress the most volatile elements in his psychology gave Mill a confident sense of authority over his history and the imagination it engendered.
This empowering engineering animates the process and dominates the design of his self-portraiture. It became one of Mill’s principal purposes in the Autobiography to characterize himself as not as a damaged personality replying to injured percepts and volatile passions but an elegant intelligence venerating, replying to, and creating wisdom. He persistently defines himself in his memoir as a man in biology, but an intellect in essence. An intellect selfless and vast: a mature moral instrumentation ideally suited for dispassionate inquiry and impersonal truth.
We recall Mill expresses his determination to depersonalize his personality from the outset. Earlier in the essay we discussed the fact that he begins the book by asserting he is not important, and his life is monotonous:
It seems proper that I should prefix to the following biographical sketch, some mention of the reasons which have made me think it desirable that I should leave behind me such a memorial of so uneventful a life as mine. I do not for a moment imagine that any part of what I have to relate, can be interesting to the public as a narrative, or as being connected with myself.
Reading this modest disclaimer may cause us momentarily to disremember that its author composed it at a moment when he was one of the world’s most admired and acclaimed persons: universally respected, globally influential, at a peak of intellectual authority and impact unequalled in England or any other country.
Autobiography, indeed. Because I am of no interest, he tells us, the core subject of my memoir will not be the register of my experiences, the history of my psyche, or the story of my soul. Instead, I will portray the pedagogy my maker practiced upon my mind:
… I have thought that in an age in which education, and its improvement, are the subject of more, if not of profounder study than at any former period it English history, it may be useful that there should be some record of an education which was unusual and remarkable.
I will not just make a “record” of the course of study my father created. I will record the “successive phases” of the mentation his pedagogy manufactured:
In an age of transition in opinions, there may be somewhat both of interest and of benefit in noting the successive phases of any mind which was always pressing forward, equally ready to learn and to unlearn either from its own thoughts or from those of others.
These are emphatic dissociations. But they are not sufficient for Mill’s epically self-effacing intention:
A motive which weighs more with me than either of these, is a desire to make acknowledgment of the debts which my intellectual and moral development owes to othe persons (3).
This arresting sentence expresses, and clearly intends to express, an almost total failure of coenesthesia. He does not simply recuse himself as the subject of his own life story. He seems to relish taking this drastic step.
How can this be? Why does this wonderful man, this supremely accomplished thinker and artist, derive pleasure from refusing to recognize any actuality and worth in his own independent, extraordinarily successful individuality?
Why? Because renouncing his personhood allows him to disestablish everything subconscious, disconcerting, and objectionable in the person who resides inside his personhood.
It is to gain this long-sought control and elusive peace that Mill insists that he is not meaningfully a personality at all: that everything “connected with myself” resides solely in his intellect, the system of education by which it was instructed, and the methodologies by which it operates.
The totality of my selfhood, he tells us, exists solely as a bodying forth of absolutely conscious, rationally constructed “opinions.” By my father’s design and my own preference, I am an accretion of willed, lucid, cogitated, easeful, and healthy “thoughts.”
Mill makes his objectified cerebration not just his memoir’s chief topic but as well its leading character. Throughout the Autobiography he speaks of his mental activity as though it were an entity invariably supraliminal and somehow discrete from himself: an autonomous, purposive object rather than the elemental projection of a large and various, often subliminal, at least partially instinctive, acutely affective human being.
When we earlier explored the work’s opening paragraph, we noted the material is intriguing because it reveals how difficult its author found it to differentiate his true self from his life’s situations and sources. We now can see this symbolic sterilization was a choice rather than a fate: a decision as well as a patrimony.
As he wrote the Autobiography, Mill grew increasingly comfortable with and explicit about the idea of himself as a holistically ratiocinative, indebted, synthetic, and neuter intelligence. He ever more extremely represents himself as a man who has experienced tribulations but has developed in reply no reactive damages. No subterranean scars. Only hale awareness, immeasurable learning, and momentous capabilities – all of which are tributes not to him but to his male parent and, as we soon shall learn, his wife. His wife who shared his mother’s name: Harriet .
The Autobiography’s opening maneuvers are prototypical of all that follow. The lengths to which Mill goes in the story of his life to conceal the existence and actual nature of his life are strange and sad – although in an anomalous way exceedingly creative.
He rarely allows himself to depict his personality, its passions, or its modes of presentation. He seldom says: I felt, I sensed, I grew, I desired. Instead he crafts such clotted locutions as:
It was at the period of my mental progress which I now have reached that I formed the friendship which has been the honour and chief blessing of my existence, as well as the source of a great part of all that I have attempted to do, or hope to effect hereafter, for human improvement. (111)
He never characterizes his emotions as active, energetic, unregulated sensations. Even when he describes love and marriage. In lieu of exulting that he met, felt electrified by, fell in love with, wooed, and wed a beautiful and brilliant woman named Harriet Taylor, he gelidly declares:
To be admitted into any degree of mental intercourse with a being of [her] qualities, could not help but have a most beneficial influence on my development; though the effect was only gradual, and many years elapsed before her mental progress and mine went forward in the complete companionship they at last attained” (113).
Throughout the Autobiography Mill systematically conceals the fact that he was a spirited, libidinal man. And he does so with palpable comfort and zeal.
6. The Alchemy of Autobiography
The autobiographer’s incongruously impassioned dehumanization of himself gradually comes to seem the Autobiography’s secret theme or covert plot. We feel as engaged and moved by the remoteness and automatism of Mill’s prose as by the remarkable history it relates.
As we read his happily dissociative language we perforce wonder what imaginative requirements he satisfies by depriving himself of his own tangibleness. Why does he delight in repudiating his primacy and renouncing his particularity? What pleasures does he win by devitalizing his individuality and annulling his autonomy?
We know the answer to these questions. The Autobiography and the life that produced the need to write it provide the explanation and its evidence.
We know that depersonalizing and subordinating himself gave Mill a considerable degree of control over the debilitating anxieties his childhood had built into his consciousness. By convincing himself that he can be defined exclusively as his cerebral cognitions and ethical intelligence he invalidates the content, meaning, and authority of the grievous injuries his parents imposed upon him.
He basks in his refusal to register awareness of himself as a man of feeling because this tactic frees him from having to be aware that what he always most deeply feels is confusion, anger, and suffering. The subconscious nature of the expedient makes it all the more efficacious and therefore gratifying.
Again and again he invokes this healing construct. I am a mind, not a man. I am not my hurt, stormy emotionality. I am not my perplexity, or my grief, or my indignation. I am my education and my opinions. I am innocuous. I am my equitable, detached, achromatic “intellectual and moral development.”
This is why the Autobiography’s prose is most elevated when it is least personal: when it is epicene. It may seem to us peculiar, perhaps even perverse, that Mill sounds so content and confident whenever he can represent himself in impersonal and inactive, indeed, robotic locutions. But we are not Mill.
For Mill, awareness of emotion must always have been awareness of torment. No wonder his language sounds most robust, skilled, and cheerful when he can avoid and thus demit all traces of affect. Neutering the actuality of emotion in his writing grants him an empowering insensitivity. Not a falsifying amnesia: a protective anesthesia.
Purging from his prose all reference to feeling gives him the prophylactic ability to imagine that his edification, not his heartache, his accomplishments, not his anguish, constitute his authentic reality. I am, he can suppose, my erudition and its educators. I am my ratiocination, and its indebtedness to my father and my wife. I am not, I certainly am not, my baffled, messy, potentially eruptive turbulence.
In Mill’s “biographical sketch” we confront a most rare phenomenon. We encounter a work that extended to its author the ability to transcend by evasion and transform by denial the pains and pathologies that originally inspired him to write it.
The Autobiography could not cure but it did confine and contain the traumas that brought it into being. It performs a salvific alchemy upon the life it purports to portray.
7. James’s Mandate, John’s Mission
At a level of consciousness just beneath that of awareness Mill cannot have failed to realize that the personality he invents in the Autobiography precisely resembles – nay, incarnates – the character who had been his imperial father’s imaginative ideal.
In his ingenious feat of self-effacing self-portraiture, the adult artist faithfully fulfilled the mandate of his childhood. He authored himself as the minimally individualized, purely intellective, invariably equanimous, entirely ancillary human being his powerfully loved parent always had insisted he become .
Or so it may appear. But a more subversive mandate is also in play here: a discreetly insurrectionist mission. Mill as well is researching the extent to which he can depart from the narrow parameters his parent permitted, and demarcate himself as his own man.
The manner and method by which Mill defines himself in the Autobiography – what we have called his maneuvers, the language in which he vests them, his whole verbal persona – establish him as an unequivocally dutiful son. Simultaneously, though, the uses to which he put his dutiful and dependent personality helped him become a self-governing, self-determining adult.
Mill wrote his memoir carefully. He expects us to read it carefully. He consistently records that he was in every respect an obedient heir. But he wants us to discern that as he advanced in years he also thought and acted in such a way as to fashion autonomous views and forward independent ends.
Here is how he launches the exegesis of his necessarily furtive duality:
I thought for myself almost from the first, and occasionally thought differently from [my father], though for a long time only on minor points, and making his opinion the ultimate standard (19).
As he grew older, he more openly averred his binary identity :
[My] writings were no longer mere reproductions and applications of the doctrines I had been taught; they were original thinking … and I do not exceed the truth in saying that there was a maturity, and a well-digested character about them (72).
Gradually, cautiously, circumspectly, he separated from his patriarch. But he did so in a custom quiet, nonconfrontational, and determinedly respectful of the person who had shaped him:
My father’s tone of thought and feeling, I now felt myself at a great distance from: greater, indeed, than a full and calm explanation and reconsideration on both sides, might have shown to exist in reality… On those matters of opinion on which we differed, we talked little. He knew that the habit of thinking for myself, which his mode of education had fostered, sometimes led me to opinions different from his, and he perceived from time to time that I did not always tell him how different.
He violates his principle of strategic repression only when he must. Only when he finds himself in disagreements with his father profound and pervasive. Only with regard to issues defining of character rather than illustrative of mere dialogic nuance:
I expected no good, but only pain to both of us, from discussing our differences: and I never expressed them but when he gave utterance to some opinion or feeling repugnant to mine, in a manner which would have made it disingenuousness on my part to remain silent (108).
As he expounds his experience in the Autobiography, Mill concurrently reaffirms and recants the father’s pedagogy and the child’s program. In his psyche, he persuades himself, he was a loyal and loving son. But in his work he was a free agent: and he gradually became in fact as well as by reputation the preeminent modern champion of human liberty.
Mill is writing a literature intricate and resolving. He is engaging in a portraiture that permits him to view himself as a complex concomitance: his father’s object, and his own person.
This sophisticated dance of subordination and sovereignty further elucidates the otherwise mystifying exuberance of the Autobiography’s often chill and cheerless prose. Now we more fully can understand why Mill always sounds most self-assured when his language is most self-deprecating and ensconcing. Why he sounds most serene when his syntaxes are most stark, staid, and striated. The reason is that the prose is accomplishing the seemingly impossible dyadic solution its author so desperately needs.
In his “biographical sketch” the child reveres and remains forever reliant upon his totalitarian father. But he also emancipates himself from him. The son continues permanently loyal to his parent’s enervating “mode of education.” But he also forges an identity independent, inventive, and wondrously productive.
The Autobiography allowed Mill peacefully and permanently to unite his infantilism with his adulthood. Crafting his complex memoir allowed him to satisfy, salute, and yet separate from his preternaturally powerful patriarch.
He is never defiant. But he does not remain a thrall. He constructs a mechanism by which he can represent his lifelong submission to his sire as a sane and salubrious evolution into individuality, freedom, and self-rule.
In his luminous Autobiography Mill accomplishes a miracle. The unfairly appropriated apostle transforms himself into an appropriately imperceptible apostate. He renders himself at once retainer and renegade, serf and suzerain, vassal and vanquisher.
Isn’t it beautiful?
Are not human beings – this human being, certainly — marvels of resilience, ingenuity, and tact?
8. Narcissist to Another’s Imago
I have characterized the Autobiography as a narrative that is diffident by design. For reasons that his history embedded in his mentality Mill rarely focuses on himself in the story of himself; and he never lauds his character or even references his world-renowned successes.
This tendency became a defining trait of his conscious thought, and one of his seminal teachings. In his public and in his private writings he repeatedly observes that excessive self-involvement (by which he often seems to have meant virtually any self-involvement) is ridiculous and reprehensible.
To Florence Nightingale, for instance:
No earthly power can ever prevent the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure of human egotism from weighing down and thrusting aside those who have not the power to resist it. Where there is life there is egotism .
This is a characteristic declamation. In his literature, letters, and conversation Mill inveighs often and with atypical heat against the insipidity and destructiveness of “human egotism.”
Despite his campaign against self-aggrandizement, and despite his many motives for minimizing his importance in his own life and work, the Autobiography frequently assumes an aggressively self-assured and self-assertive tone. Lodged in the work’s discreet discourse we often encounter startlingly intemperate celebrations of self. The narrative is layered with passages that must strike us as egregious examples of “the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure of human egotism.”
What is riveting about these passages is the fact that they aggrandize not Mill himself, but his father and his wife. In the story of his life as in the living of it, he dedicates an inordinate amount of attention and regard to not his own but two other persons’ egos.
His testimonials to his father are especially excited and exorbitant. Early in the Autobiography, for example, he panegyrizes James’s achievements as an historian and political figure in terms that will sound to many readers consciously extravagant:
I still think [my father’s History of British India], if not the most, one of the most instructive histories ever written, and one of the books from which most benefit may be derived from a mind in the course of making up its opinions…. And his dispatches, following his History, did more than ever had been done before to promote the improvement of India, and teach Indian officials to understand their business. If a selection of them were published, they would, I am convinced, place his character as a practical statesman fully on a level with his eminence as a speculative writer (16-17).
Later he exclaims:
I have never known any man who could do such ample justice to his best thoughts in colloquial discussion. His perfect command over his great mental resources, the terseness and expressiveness of his language and the moral earnestness as well as the intellectual force of his delivery, made him one of the most striking of all argumentative conversers.
Not merely a genius of dialogue and sublime guru of strategic analysis, policy formation, and colonial administration, James was as well a metacognitive catalyst, an irresistible inspirer, a change agent of unparalleled power and beneficence:
It was not solely, or even chiefly, in defusing his merely intellectual convictions, that his power shewed [sic] itself: it was still more through the influence of a quality, of which I have only since learnt to appreciate the extreme rarity: that exalted public spirit and regard above all things to the good of the whole, which warmed into life and activity every germ of similar virtue that existed in the minds he came into contact with (62).
Mill’s displaced egotism is particularly conspicuous when he idealizes the scale and scope of his father’s impact. At one point he insists James’s sphere of authority – his potency – was a permeation pervasive, permanent, and heroically philanthropic:
My father’s conversations and personal influence made his opinions tell on the world; cooperating with the effect of his writings in making him a power in the country, such as it has rarely been the lot of an individual in a private station to be, through the mere force of intellect and character: and a power which was often acting the most efficiently where it was least seen and suspected.
Mill is generous in assigning a share in his sonship to many. He is happy to apportion his patrimony to many – to make it in essence cosmic:
How much of what was done by Ricardo, Hume, and Grote, was the result, in part, of his prompting and persuasion. He was the good genius by the side of Brougham in most of what he did for the public, either on education, law reform, or any other subject. And his influence flowed in minor streams too numerous to be mentioned (55-6).
His advocacy is ardent, but not unbridled. He acknowledges that Jeremy Bentham exercised a force more puissant than his father. But he does maintain that Bentham’s canon and consequence would have been far lesser had it not been for James’s indispensable inculcation tutelage:
The influence which Bentham exercised was by his writings. Through them he has produced, and is producing, effects on the condition of mankind, wider and deeper, no doubt, than any which can be attributed to my father. He is a much greater name in history… [However] it was my father’s opinions which gave the distinguishing character to the Benthamic or utilitarian propagandism of that time (62).
James’s magnanimity, wisdom, and grace “flowed”(65) everywhere. His power, like a god’s, “was often acting the most efficiently where it was least seen and suspected.” He was the unpublicized but formative force behind all the vital work of Ricardo, Hume, Grote, Brougham, and, as the Autobiography thoroughly documents, John Stuart Mill.
“Benthamism” itself is a misnomer. The entire “Benthamic or utilitarian” era in the history of western civilization should be known, named, and commemorated as the Age of James Mill.
Mill’s homages to his wife are even more hyperbolic than his plaudits to his parent. This is especially true of his introductory description of Harriet. In an access of overwrought devotion, he cries – he gloats:
Alike in the highest regions of speculation and the smallest practical concerns of daily life, her mind was the same perfect instrument, piercing to the very heart and marrow of the matter: always seizing the essential idea or principle. The same exactness and rapidity of operation, pervading as it did her sensitive as well as her mental faculties, would have fitted her to be a consummate artist, as her fiery and tender soul and her vigorous eloquence would certainly have made her a great orator, and her profound knowledge of human nature and discernment and sagacity in practical life, would in the times when such a carriere was open to women, have made her eminent among the rulers of mankind (112-13).
This is paean passionate and sweeping, but it does not suffice. It is Harriet’s character and her heart, her undiscriminating goodness and empathetic tenderness that this love-starved celebrant most admires and cherishes:
Her intellectual gifts did but minister to a moral character at once the noblest and best balanced which I ever met with in life. Her unselfishness was not that of a taught system of duties, but of a heart which thoroughly identified itself with the feelings of others, and often went to excess in consideration for them, by imaginatively investing their feelings with the intensity of its own. The passion of justice might have been thought to be her strongest feeling, but for her boundless generosity, and a lovingness ever ready to pour itself forth upon any or all human beings who were capable of giving the smallest feeling in return.
Harriet does not simply fulfill the conventionally quietistic feminine paradigm. She triumphs, too, in the assertive virtues and activist tropes normally attributed to males:
The rest of her moral characteristics were such as naturally accompany these qualities of mind and heart: the most genuine modesty combined with the loftiest pride; a simplicity and sincerity which were absolute, towards all who were fit to receive them; the utmost scorn for whatever was mean and cowardly, and a burning indignation at everything brutal or tyrannical, faithless, or dishonorable in conduct and character (113).
Like the passages that eulogize James, Mill’s accolades to his wife are so immoderate as to seem, despite their formal disinterestedness, vainglorious and vaunting. The subject of these effusions is not himself. But in the substitutive and symbolic senses their author required, the writing sounds and is egotistical.
We find ourselves in the presence of a uniquely vicarious genus of solipsism: by a considerable measure the most idiosyncratic instance of self-absorption in English literature. In the making of his memoir as in the conduct of his life, Mill could situate and value himself only by unduly magnifying the significance of the only two persons in the world he ever felt able to love.
We know this is how it had to be. If we remind ourselves of the Autobiography’s opening paragraphs – who could forget them – we will see at once that vicarious self-knowledge was the only form of self-awareness available to Mill. The early passages make it clear that Mill’s terrible family life and chthonic childhood deprived him of almost all the cognitions and certitudes most human beings need to develop a strong and spontaneous ego identity .
This is not jargon. It is not psychobabble. The paragraphs we earlier examined show us, as they showed their author, that John Mill had to devote the entirety of his formidable energy, intelligence, and creativity to generate and honor the mental image not of himself, but of James Mill.
John did develop a full complement of psychical constituents. Like other men, he experienced stimuli, developed affects, constructed percepts, created drives, and knew desires. But he could accept and allocate his own actuality only by regarding his selfhood as the overflow or gifts of his more powerful sponsor. He could delineate “the constant unceasing unsleeping elastic pressure” of his egotism only by trivializing himself and aggrandizing his parent.
This was the only model he knew. So in his adulthood he replicated his self-estranging but successful art. He made a second substitutive identification with his wife: his excessively significant other.
For Mill intuitive and innate ego-identification was, in the language of psychoanalytic psychology, ego-dystonic. Ego-identification felt toward and expressed on behalf of his two ego ideals was ego-syntonic .
To us his situation may seem tragic or absurd or possibly even comic. We cannot conceive how any person could regard an identification based upon two obeisant subordinations as anything other than an impossibly humiliating infringement.
But, again: we are not he. The Autobiography abundantly demonstrates that an identity built upon even his truncated role as his father’s minion and his wife’s votary seemed to Mill incomparably more stable and satisfying than no identity at all.
If we look through the prism of his perspective, we will see that he was creating in his memoir not a displacement but an extraordinary intensification of identity. Writing the Autobiography showed him that in the course of living his exceedingly difficult life he had built a definable, explicit, persisting, and productive personality.
This was a discovery for him – a discovery not disturbing, not demeaning, but thrilling. Yes, the personality he crafted was in tendency submissive, to some degree subsidiary, often surrogate, in some measure subjugated. But it also was authentic and individual: his own, and no one else’s.
Recording the history of his uncommonly contingent “mental life” helped Mill realize that he had a mental life. Describing his ineludibly subservient character taught him that he had a character.
He was the man, he learned, who was the cherished son of an almighty father. He was the man who was the beloved husband of an omniscient and all-important wife. He was a man who was actual and important because he was profoundly involved with – he stood as proxy for – two unique world-historical geniuses. The sine and cosine of his tender psyche and his aching heart.
This is why his exquisite prose becomes so excited, so elastically “egotistical,” every time he exalts his sire and his spouse. Although he technically refers in these feverish passages to two other people’s virtues, strengths, and attainments, it felt to him that he was claiming his own substance and certifying – celebrating – his own significance.
Mill survived his childhood by generating from its unpromising fundament a strikingly unusual exteriorized narcissism. The elation with which he defines his dependencies and glorifies his two towering monarchs testifies to the relief, joy, and pride he derived from feeling himself able to assert any kind of identification – even a tragic, possibly an absurd, possibly a comic identification.
9. John Mill Made John Mill
Now we can decrypt the most important reason for Mill’s excitement in the Autobiography.
Early in the narrative he quietly notes:
The question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, because we have no experience or authentic information from which to answer it (27).
Writing about his life provided him with enough “authentic information” to answer this basal question; and to answer it in a manner that gave him armistice and amity.
Recalling, reinterpreting, reshaping, and recording his history – literally authoring his biography – helped him realize know that, although his father, his wife, and his civilization all contributed mightily to his “intellectual and moral development,” it was John Stuart Mill who ultimately “made” John Stuart Mill.
In relating the story of his life Mill makes it clear that he neither chose nor rarely enjoyed his life. He makes it equally evident, though, that he did choose the reactions his experience stimulated: reactions which, in their sum and end, constituted his extraordinary adult sensibility.
As he wrote, rewrote, then at last told the tale of his “mental progress,” Mill discovered his memories, outlooks, and emotions comprised an “authentic information.” And he discovered the meaning of this information was himself.
As he composed the record of his history, he realized it was he alone who, against all odds, had wanted, fashioned, and fiercely protected the sage identity and sachem personality that had “made” him a majestic presence in the world and a legitimate subject for autobiography.
He knew his psychology was not entirely independent. He knew he was irreducibly linked to his father and cleaved to his wife. But in authoring the narrative of his life he learned it was he who had accepted these bonds, forged their chains, and acceded to their limits parameters. And he learned, for the first time in his life, he had made himself a distinctive, communicable, and exceptionally productive person by doing so.
Mill is an excited writer in the Autobiography because as he composed an entire volume concerned principally with the previously murky topic and shrouded topography of himself he consciously realized he was giving birth to and enjoying the strong pleasures of a fully defined and wholly accepted personality. A personality faithfully loyal to his father and poignantly loving to his wife. A personality he owned, named, and publicly declared as John Stuart Mill.
The narrative does not permit either its author or its audience to romanticize the personality Mill “made.” Aspects of the “authentic information” he assembled about himself are troubling. But the information is also coherent, unified, and of his own devising.
It is for this reason that, despite the often melancholy nature of its tale, the tone of the Autobiography is animated, confident, and, frequently, so sweetly happy. It is a stout and stimulating book because its author proved to himself by writing it that he was a sturdy, interesting, and worthy man.
10. Elegy for a Genius
This is what Mill discovered. But what have we learned about his journey? What have we learned about the ground John Mill found for himself in the self-penned story of John Mill?
We have learned why Mill believed he had to organize the conversation about this most personal of subjects – the subject of himself – in willfully impersonal ways. And we have learned how his estrangement and remoteness ultimately metamorphosed into intimacy, enfranchisement, and ardor.
Many people find Mill’s literature deficient in its emotions, sparse in its excitements, perhaps superannuated by the passing of time, the shifting of era, the mutation of epoch. To some readers his seems the least compelling of the major works of modernist autobiography.
I understand this reaction, but I cannot share it. I consider the Autobiography a masterpiece of memoir. I find it a mesmerizing and inspiring book. Initially heartrending, then ecstatic. Vulnerable, valiant, devoid of vanity, deceit, and guile.
Like it or loathe it, the Autobiography in my judgment is essential to any informed study of the industrial, scientific, and technological age. It is a literary and spiritual creation indispensable for any cogent comprehension of the boons our civilization has granted us – and the damages it has inflicted upon us. Upon children in particular.
Mill’s writing often does seem sterile and, yes, sometimes even sclerotic. But the emotions the Autobiography expresses, investigates, and resolves are singularly interesting and of volcanic intensity.
No doubt Mill’s cognitions, beliefs, and projections of personhood are far less individuated, forceful, joyful, and beautiful than, say, Wordsworth’s or John Lennon’s. Certainly he was less ardently involved with and less clairvoyantly aware of himself than Augustine or Rousseau. The Autobiography seems to me, though, fully as inventive, inimitable, and irreplaceable a creation as The Prelude, Across the Universe, or either of The Confessions.
For Mill shares these more widely loved autobiographers’ canonical and crucial compulsion: the need to know and proclaim an identity. The drive – perhaps it is a duty – to locate, seize, and make manifest a definitive, durable, and describable adult sensibility.
Mill’s embrace of this compulsion and his power to fulfill it are especially impressive when we take into account the deracinating wounds he suffered during his infancy, youth, and young manhood.
The Autobiography grants us privileged access to this private terrain. As we read about and react to his often hellish experience, we surely should regard it as miraculous that a person so trespassed against, a man so primally injured, chose not to collapse into self-annihilation, nihilism, violence, or accidie, but instead elected to rescue himself from the privation to which his life seemingly had been consigned by force majeure.
The wounds Mill suffered were such severity that they impermeably affected his ability to feel and his capacity to commune comfortably with others. But in respect for the man, in respect for the magnitude of his suffering and the greatness of his achievements, we should strive not to become misled by or impatient with the symptoms of his sufferings.
Sufferings? Let us give his conditions their right name: his illnesses.
Conditions or illnesses, Mill gives us the lens to see his spirit and an invitation to enter his soul. He reveals how we can unravel his inhibitions, anxieties, and inadvertent disguises. He shows us how to unearth in the text what he birthed by writing it: a living character, troubled but colossally gifted, indomitably resilient, magically creative. An injured child become by choice, by insistence, an heroically healthy adult.
11. John Is Us, We Are John
There is more to the story of The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill. One chapter more. We have not yet quite said what makes this often stolid, sometimes stuffy work one of the world’s most magnificent, urgent, important, and esteemed books.
How is it that this initially uninviting work grasps, grips, and in the end enchants us? How is it that this apparently unique chronicle of an apparently diacritical existence beguiles its way into our heart, and speaks with us as an intimate familiar?
I think the answer is that Mill’s existence was not singular. I believe we recognize our own story in Mill’s extreme version of it.
I know we admire the courage, grace, and skill with which Mill interprets, survives, and ultimately makes fertility out of his initially devastating extremity. I know we admire his openness and honesty, honor his artistry, and derive hope from his triumphal resolutions.
Certainly Mill’s childhood was radical in its content and its consequences. But we all have experienced a version of its core elements. We all have been birthed into a cosmos of beliefs and a dynamic of behaviors we did not choose, and do not necessarily find compatible with our inborn nature.
Mill’s parents were unusual. My goodness, they were baroque. His mother was made a cipher in her family, and his father was a hegemon: empowered, proactive, agential, and insidious on a grand scale.
But we all have been parented. Like Mill we all initially project our progenitors as omniscient, omnipotent, and perfect in character. Less persons than paragons. Like Mill we acquire more correct insight. Gradually, with great ingenuity and effort, we adjust our gratitude, our awe, and our disappointment with their imperfections into informed love.
As was the case with Mill, the parenting we experience deposits sediments large, outsized, in many instances determinative, throughout the foundations of our aware thought and subliminal consciousness. Nevertheless, with great ingenuity and effort, we gradually make terms painful but mature with the immensely complicated crevasses and difficult tunnels through which we progress.
Mill’s education was extensive, stunningly effective, and horrid. But we’ve all been schooled. We all have found much or most of our schooling, however well intended, however effectual, to be humiliating, hurtful, harmful, and in its aggregate hideous. Nevertheless, with great ingenuity and effort, we gradually learn to respect what was valid and extract what was valuable in our edification, esteem our best edifiers’ best impulses, and eschew what may have been ignorant, invalid, and injuring in their instruction. Not as wisely or as well as Mill, but like him in principle, we eventually elevate ourselves into independent, self-reliant, lifelong pupils to our own tutelage.
Or we don’t. Then we shrivel into victimhood, dismal discontent, quiet or noisy triviality.
We love Mill’s Autobiography despite its flaws because in it Mill tells us how he learned to adhere to those he revered, yet accomplish parturition. As we all must do in the course of making, living, and enjoying our lives.
We love the Autobiography because we love John Stuart Mill. He was indeed a very great man. His work, its influence, his heritage: every one of us lives a life more liberated, more judicious, more august than we would have done had he not fought for and won his will to live, his right to life.
We love the Autobiography because it teaches us how this valorous mentor learned to reverence his mentors’ originality and accomplishments, yet free his own immense and immensely inventive intellect for its calling. Its genius. Its work of encouraging in England and throughout the world a culture of dignity, truth, justice, generosity, and high reason. A humane heritage of large, liberal, liberating love – our common longing, and our universal birthright.
Occasionally the book is arthritic. Occasionally its prose imposes tedium. But we forgive that. We love the Autobiography anyhow. We love it because it teaches us what many of its author’s contemporaries already knew: its author, that noble man John Stuart Mill, is a hero of the human spirit.
We love the Autobiography because it helps us frame, comprehend, and intelligently transact the momentous questions most of us commit our life to resolving:
Whom do I love?
Whom do I depend upon?
Who am I, within and beyond my dependencies?
And, for what reason have I been brought here? What work have I been called here to do?
To read a fully annotated edition of this essay, please click the link below: